The Secret Life of Whisky

In his first three articles Steve talked about the differences between malt and grain whisky, how they can be combined and how their smell affects us. I would like to pick up the pen and first have a look at what whiskies offer our other senses.

The way a dram looks, smells, tastes and even feels is how it brings pleasure to our faculties.(How a dram sounds is a bit harder to appreciate although the promising pop of a cork followed by the glug of a pouring bottle is quite a treat to the ears.)

Let’s start with what a whisky offers our eyes: although a dram may range in appearance from crystal clarity to tar black they all start as a clear and colourless spirit. It should only be the time in an oak cask that creates a whisky’s unique hue. The concept of maturation would have been alien to our ancestors. They were interested in creating a warming spirit from their barley beer and were probably quite happy with the results of their simple tools and methods. Little did they know that their powerful alchemy of elements could be tamed to a soft and soothing reward.

Only through accident was it discovered that, by spending time in a porous oak container, the harsher aspects of the still’s labour are exchanged for mellower, more inviting flavours, aromas and textures. Thanks to the tiny pores within a tree’s structure, a cask offers an exit for unpalatable elements while allowing the surrounding atmosphere of the warehouse to permeate the liquid. Thus a slow oxidisation contributes to the complex chain of biochemical reactions creating a whisky’s character.
However, a barrel simply made from virgin oak is not quite adequate for the distiller’s needs. Without treating the internal surface with high temperature a cask would deliver hardly any of its potential flavour nor would it cleanse the spirit properly.

This discovery probably would also have been a fluke. Casks may well have been burnt in order to kill off any bacteria growing in the wood. Happily for us the charcoal created during firing helps to attract unpleasant tasting results from the brewing and distilling processes which are absorbed into the cask staves and then dissipate into the atmosphere. Further, the surface area of a torched cask is much greater than an untreated one and this increase in ratio between wood and liquid promotes the speedier interaction between the two. During the high temperatures of toasting the chemistry of parts of the wood are altered. This process also contributes to the qualities in the finished product.

For our present interest in colouring, the effects of the cooper’s fire are to be thanked for the pleasure we get while appraising our dram’s complexion for, without that carbon layer, there would be nothing to look at; the whisky would have that same raw clarity it had on the day the cask was filled.

So, from the initial appreciation of a glass’ content, can we learn anything from how a whisky appears? Its age perhaps, the type of cask used, or even which distillery it came from and then maybe how it tastes? My answer is…not really! It is tempting to generalise and say a darker dram is older, but it’s more likely to have come from time spent in a cask previously used for maturing sherry, in which case it’s probably a Macallan and is a full flavoured, dry, rich example giving raisin notes. The trouble is that there are too many exceptions to this type of simplifying of a complex set of permutations. The deep reds given to American whiskies from their domestic oak species and the relatively light aspect of many sherries confuse the issue when predicting a whisky’s colour from the provenance of the cask. In Scotland we don’t use our home grown wood for barrels as it is hard to work with, scarce and contains too many off notes. We import used casks mainly from Spain and the USA. So just enjoy the colour of your dram and perhaps spare a thought for that hundred year old tree from a thousand miles away.

Finally, a sobering post script. For around a century it has been the norm for whisky companies to put spirit caramel in their product. It is believed that the variation in colour found from batch to batch of a brand would act as a sales deterrent. The consumer will apparently expect a different flavour from a bottle that is not the same in colour as the previous one. In order to avoid such confusion it is allowed to adjust the tint of the drink so that a standard is reached.

As there is no requirement in most markets to detail this additive on labels it is not common knowledge. In fact it can be a bit of a dirty secret in the industry and certainly a contentious issue. I have never met a drinker who thinks this impurity is a positive measure as far as contributing to their drinking pleasure is concerned.

However if this practice is a necessary evil in helping to sell whisky and if it does not affect the taste, then perhaps the whole industry benefits. Whether burnt sugar compromises a whisky’s qualities of flavour and bouquet is arguable. Bottlers who use this method tell us the quantity required for the desired effect is tiny and will not be detectable. As a form of caramel is generated during the torching of casks, it can be difficult to separate those traces of sweetness added from the ‘pure’. However, when considering the integrity of your next purchase, have a look at the label. Although in this country there is no need to detail this e number, it is required in some overseas markets where stricter food packaging laws exist. The words ‘mit farbstof’ give away this questionable ‘improvement’. But take heart! There are more and more noble exceptions to artificial colouring. as consumers get wise to issues relating to food processing. Those celebrating the difference in an otherwise natural product most often advertise their honesty by noting the absence of dye proudly on the front label – in English.

One final word on this issue. In the USA it is illegal to artificially colour Bourbon.

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